In 2015, the Russian government proposed a program—the Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens in 2016-2020—that called for an eight percent increase in patriotic youth and a ten percent increase in recruits for the Russian army by the year 2020. The agenda is heavily weighted towards militaristic training and disseminating patriotic ideologies. Over 200,000 youth are currently enrolled in patriotic educational clubs—10,000 in Moscow alone. Every club functions independently, each with their own structure and philosophy. According to one source, the program will cost somewhere around 1.7 billion rubles for its first two years (around 30 million USD).

My project, “Toy Soldiers,” explores the subject of intergenerational war for adolescents in Russia. It focuses on non-governmental organizations—such as military-patriotic clubs, military sports associations, and the patriotic clubs formed under the umbrella of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This is an ongoing project that I began in April 2016. The locations are scattered throughout various regions of Russia, starting in the Moscow Oblast and reaching to regions such as Diveyevo. I photographed public schools, summer camps, army-sports competitions and more.

I am interested in the question of nationalism and how its traditions and ideologies are passed down to younger generations. This project is my search for an answer to the question “why are we in love with the fantasy of war?” I see a contradiction between the freedom of youth and the indoctrination of war; between the love of one’s country and a blinding patriotism.

I believe that in order to find answers to these questions, the best place to look is at the generation that will be defining the future ideologies of the world we live in.

—Sarah Blesener

Editors’ Note: This project was recognized by the jury of the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2016—don’t miss the work from all 50 of these outstanding, international talents!

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like one of these previous features: Here are the Young Men (Marked), a series on how the faces of soldiers change before, during, and after combat; Crimea Sich, about a military training camp for children in the Russian-controlled area of Ukraine; and Military Games, Anton Vinogradov’s investigation of adult agendas at a patriotic military summer camp in Russia.